Courtesy Ashley Gonzalez
Ashley Gonzalez, 40, retired from the Navy last year after a 21-year-career. He had a smooth transition back to civilian life thanks to a network of veterans organizations in San Diego.
After 21 years in the Navy, Ashley Gonzalez, 40, had to make a tough choice last year: uproot his family from San Diego for an assignment in Mississippi or retire and rejoin the civilian world.
Gonzalez, a chief petty officer, had previously deployed to counter-narcotic operations in South and Central America and participated in a routine war games exercise on the Korean peninsula. Civilian life, he knew, would be much different. But his daughter, 16, and son, 12, wanted to stay in San Diego, and so began Gonzalez’s transition back to a life he’d left long ago.
Gonzalez was confident at first; after all, he’d spent the past two decades earning a masters degree and learning skills like management, mentoring and public speaking. The shaky economy, however, tested his optimism.
“It was overwhelming, it was tough,” he told NBC News. “There were times when we questioned the transition.”
Gonzalez is lucky to live near a city where there are more than 100 non-profit organizations that provide a range of services to veterans. In the past few years, these groups have formed a coalition to ensure that every service member has access to resources like health care, education, legal aid and job counseling, which can be essential for starting anew as a civilian.
Gary Rossio, co-founder of the San Diego Veterans Coalition, said the collaboration has an urgent mission to assist those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, more than 1 million service members will leave the military in the next four years as positions are eliminated through budget cuts and the drawdown from Afghanistan.
“We don’t want another lost generation of veterans like we had with Vietnam,” said Rossio, who served in the Air Force in the 1970s and spent 30 years as an official at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
San Diego, where 15,000 service members leave the military annually, may be unique in its demographics, but there is a concerted effort nationwide to provide communities with tools to connect veterans to resources, streamline services, and recruit civilian volunteers.
'It's not just about a job'
Gonzalez, who retired from the Navy last October, quickly found assistance from San Diego’s web of providers.
He attended several job fairs and followed leads, including a recommendation from his Navy career counselor to attend a local workshop called Reboot that covered not only how to compete for the right position, but also how to find purpose in a post-military life. Within a few months, thanks to the Reboot class and networking, Gonzalez landed a well-paying job as a senior consultant in logistics support for a firm that contracts with government and commercial clients.
“I was very fortunate,” said Gonzalez, who now attends Reboot classes to share his experience with students. “Because of my whole process, I’ve decided to pay it forward.”
Success stories like Gonzalez’s are becoming more common. The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans, particularly among women, has been stubbornly higher than the national civilian rate. The unemployment rate for veterans of post-9/11 conflicts was 7.5 percent in April, down from 9.2 percent in April 2012, according to the Labor Department.
Increasing veteran employment has been the target of several initiatives, most notably the White House program Joining Forces, which last week announced that American companies have committed to hiring 435,000 veterans and military spouses in the next five years.
While this is welcome news, some advocates worry that an exclusive focus on jobs ignores other important elements of transitioning from military culture to civilian life.
Maurice Wilson, a retired chief petty officer in the Navy and president of NVTSI, the non-profit that runs Reboot, said that the program guides veterans through a psychological reintegration before even talking about jobs.
Service members, he said, go from “a very organized, ordered world that is so established you don’t even have to ask questions about who you are, where you belong. What happens is that people go from order to disorder and their mind goes into a tailspin.”
Each veteran also has different needs. While one may be a double amputee, another may have post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s not just about a job,” Wilson said. “It’s about his life now.”
Reboot, which has graduated more than 800 students in nearly three years and has a long waiting list, identifies those unique needs and refers veterans to other organizations that offer assistance. This could include, for example, a VA program called From Warrior to Soul Mate, which helps veterans develop better communication skills and strengthen trust and commitment in their relationships. A legal aid program helps veterans facing jail time for minor offenses, often drug- or alcohol-related, enter therapy instead.
Wilson, who serves as a board member on the local coalition, said that the project has been a success as leaders recognize the value of working together rather than in silos with little knowledge of what other groups are doing.
“It takes the community to do it,” Wilson said of helping veterans to reintegrate. “The government can’t do it alone.”
This is the philosophy of a recently launched nationwide initiative called Community Blueprint.
The project, which is run by the Atlanta-based non-profit organization Points of Light, was developed over the past three years with the expertise of several dozen leaders of veteran organizations.
The goal, said Mike Monroe, vice president of military initiatives at Points of Light, is to provide communities with a model for how to efficiently serve veterans while also offering civilians opportunities to volunteer for a cause they may feel is important but know little about.
The program offers a “toolbox” of solutions in eight key areas, including employment, family strength, housing and education. The toolbox gives guidance on how to improve resources for veterans. If a community wants to train health providers in treating veterans with PTSD or TBI, for example, a tip sheet outlines how to measure success and raise money for training in addition to suggesting related volunteer opportunities.
Community Blueprint also runs Veteran Leader Corps, in which 75 AmeriCorps volunteers are placed in 19 communities across the country for one year of service.
Since launching in October, Community Blueprint has been adopted in 44 cities, including Phoenix, Cincinnati, Boston and San Diego. Each month, partner organizations will join a call to discuss different challenges or strategies for success. “It’s pretty humbling when you start looking at the numbers and there’s 75 people on the call,” Monroe said.
Yet, he is concerned this momentum could be blunted both by a perception that service members become “poor, sad veterans” to be helped only by the government and that reintegrating into civilian life will be a less urgent a public priority once there are no longer front-page stories about battle.
“There’s going to be a tipping point and I hope it goes in the right direction,” he said.
Gary Rossio is hopeful that coalitions like the one in San Diego, as well as initiatives like the Community Blueprint, can provide models for how to help veterans successfully reintegrate into civilian life.
“The idea is that it takes everybody to bring these folks home, and that they come home to a community, not to the VA or VFW,” Rossio said. “With that kind of attitude, you can do just about anything.”
Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter based in Oakland, Calif.